I Want To Be E.O. Wilson When I Grow Up

I caught a PBS presentation last night by the name of “Of Ants and Men” It is a documentary on E.O. Wilson and covers his life as a scientist and his personal history. All I can say is I am blown away by the accomplishments of this man, and the show was spectacular. I highly urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to do so at your earliest opportunity.

It is so good, I was watching a baseball game last night with playoff possibilities, and thought I’d go back and forth between commercials and keep up with the game. I still have no idea who won the game and don’t even care. It is that good.

Mr. Wilson is the father of sociobiology and popularized the term biodiversity. He took a lot of heat for sociobiology as it ran counter to popular thinking of the day, but I believe over time his sociobiology has been vindicated. It appears to me to have been almost as profound and as important as the work of Darwin himself.

Sociobiology is the assumption that our social aspects evolved as we did, which to me isn’t that far off base. The heat he took was from other scientists who believe that our social aspects are genetic in nature. I fail to see the problem here, as I feel that in the bigger picture, both are correct. Social behavior had to evolve with us, or we would not be what we are today. Genetics are of course a grounded standard for the way we may be wired. Finally culture or environment, and our life experiences, polish up the who and what we may have become. I see it all as one large system incorporating all of these conditions. Hell I am no scientist, I am not university trained in any particualr field, I am just a guy who has been paying attention through life, watching, learning, and trying in my own way to make sense of my surroundings. It all made good sense to me.

They also covered group selection, kin selection, tribal groups, among other things, and every single point to me was spot on.

Now Mr. Wilson, it could be said from a few things I have read, may be a little soft on religion, but I think I can forgive him that considering his massive achievements. Anyone who has a ken to understand evolution, social evolution, see a lot of fantastic science, and finally, sort of,  get to know a guy anyone would desire as a friend, has got to see this show.

“Of Ants and Men.” Look for it.

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17 thoughts on “I Want To Be E.O. Wilson When I Grow Up

  1. The man knows ants. And he’s a very good communicator. Fascinating stuff. But he is very controversial in evolutionary biology and not in a good way.

    The thorny issue with evolutionary psychology (a branch of sociobiology and a favourite of EO Wilson) is to demonstrate how social aspects of behaviour become genetically encoded in order to be heritable. There are significant problems here beyond assumptions and attributions that populate the majority of the topic.

    Like what is found in most of sociology, the central ideas I find are usually either stolen from another respectable field and repackaged as if its own, or lies… gussied up with award winning obfuscating terminology. I’m almost sure that’s how people earn their Master’s in Sociology: creating new terms.

    The latest brouhaha with Wilson is about the role of group selection. I’ve never met a sociologist who didn’t like attributing everything to groups as if they were real causal things. I don’t think Wilson is immune to this glamour.

    • Heritable cannot be through evolution? I fail to see why. If one can consider a fear of snakes an evolutionary trait, why not then our tendencies to become social creatures?

      Admitedly I am not well versed in these areas, I do my best to get it, but it might take longer than some lol.

      Genetically encoded I get, but when you look at the things he discusses, altruism, tribal bonding/groups, as well as our social condition in general, these things could be instinctual no? Does an instinct require a genetic trait? Or can it be simply an inherited function? Our brains have evolved along with the rest of us. Is it possible our brains carry with them instincts, without a necessary code to verify its existence? I am not looking for a gap here, the last thing I want is a gap to shove in an assumption, but instinct to me, seems more a possibility than not.

      • Well, they (these kinds of behaviours) obviously must have some genetic basis that aids fitness (or we wouldn’t have the ability) but no, the questionable process is about inheriting social behavioural traits specifically and how that encodes into the genes for it to become an evolutionary trait. Without this link, the group selection idea remains a hypothesis that has some but not compelling evidence in its favour.

        If you think about it simply (and, in spite of my snark, I’m a pretty simple minded kind of person), evolution is about inheritance that aids fitness (reproductive success of offspring who then live to reproductive age); attributing inheritance through group selection is a very inefficient mechanism. So, although it may play some role, many evolutionary biologists are not thrilled that Wilson presumes it to be a powerful selector without strong evidence to back it up. Jerry Coyne (a student of Wilson) has written about this criticism many times.

        We have to be careful when we speak about behaviours and genetic coding because many behaviours can be taught or adopted or produced locally without any one-to-one association with genes. Many behaviours emerge that have no such link. (I’m a big fan of thinking about flocks of birds that look like discrete things and seem to behave as if an individual thing but is really a fine example of local units obeying local rules. That’s what our bodies are: a flock of cells from which emerges what looks like a single discrete thing. Is it? Or are we really a composition of local units obeying local rules with a consciousness that is an emergent property?

      • The first thing that comes to mind is, groups evolve. I have heard and seen that so many times I can’t count them. Social activities must surely have evolved along with these groups.

        I see that you are saying, say, altruistic acts are not likeley to represent genetically. (Unless you want to bring Chopra into the conversation) But I am asking if over enough time altruisms or empathy might become ingrained, that is instinctual? Otherwise how do you account for these behaviors in children or other young animals well before they have been exposed to such behavior?

        I feel agression is instinctual. I believe a man building a fence on his property is a territorial instinct, he may not even know why he is building the fence, only that it seems the right thing to do. (I make a point of pissing on the corners of my property on a regular basis just because, lol) If these traits are instinctual, why then would altruism, empathy, and other social habits not be?

        Why do birds who have never made the trip know to fly south? Do they have genetic coding or do they have instinct? Does it necessarily require one to have the other?

        Why do cicadas come out of the ground every 13 years? Code? Or instinct? Or perhaps their calendars are 13 years worth and they need new ones?

        I have no idea how instinct becomes well instinct, and I agree that it would make more sense scientifically for it to be coded somehow. But is it possible that it just is?

        I have seen so many creatures running on, or acting in purely instinctual ways. or at least that is how I understand the behavior at this time. It just seems possible, maybe not damn well probable, that instinct is a larger driver than we are aware.

        I feel no compulsion to react by saying “I ain’t no kin to no ant.” But I do feel it makes sense in some ways that instinct is more than we realise. As always I am open to learning, and even admitting the err of my ways, once I have been convinced with the appropriate undisputable logical argument.

        So logic me. And I’ll promise not to hide behind the obvious “well maybe it’s there but they just haven’t found it yet.”

        It looks to me like it boils down to “can instinct be a separate function, a driving force that simply exists within our brains or is it strictly coded?” It takes the genetic code to kick in the instinctual behavior and/or for it to be there in the first place? Which i think you alluded to already 🙂

        instinct: “An inborn pattern of behavior that is characteristic of a species and is often a response to specific environmental stimuli”

        That dictionary definition leaves a bit to be desired. What is inborn? It doesn’t say genetically coded… It doesn’t say an evolved trait either…
        It is possible I need to throw out my assumption of instinct, and put in its place genetic traits. If that’s the case I can live with that.

        I am slowly but surely making my way along to determinism already, I can work this one in too if need be.

      • Lots of great questions but I’m only going to tackle one of them: how do you account for these behaviors (empathy and altruism) in children or other young animals well before they have been exposed to such behavior?”

        Okay. This is where we begin to appreciate the difference between presuming something like groups causes selected effects – because it looks like it does – and the actual causes. And the key here lies in linking by mechanism the effect directly to a cause.

        Now, what usually happens is the Rain Dance argument. This is where someone presumes that dance causes the rain because it appears to rain after dancing. When asked for evidence, out comes all the examples of rain after the dancing… as if that links the two.

        It doesn’t and today we know better because we looked closely at how air and humidity combine to produce precipitation and this mechanism operates without any necessary link to dancing. Obviously.

        What isn’t so obvious is the same kind of thinking applied to group selection: when questioned, the claim is that because groups demonstrate particular behaviours, these behaviours (rain) must be evidence or evolution (dancing) at work.

        But is this true?

        Again, evolution is about heritable changes that improve fitness. There’s that darn word again: heritable. How is altruism or empathy inherited? By what mechanism?

        When we examine these behaviours closely, an intriguing possibility arises. We know that both altruism and empathy are emotional responses described as putting ourselves in the place of the Other and then very often acting without much thought. We also that we come neurologically equipped in the brain to activate parts of it simply by observation. The intriguing part has to do with monkeys observing other monkeys eating… the same areas of the brain light up in both the observer and the eater. This is interesting because I think this is the mechanism by which we view our environment and personify it in order to then react to it appropriately.

        This brain neurology is heritable. And the benefits to fitness I think obvious from my understanding of male/female attraction and commitment (he’s such a good listener… she just gets me… my spouse knows me better than I know myself… and so on).

        What is raised now is the question of competition: is the more empathetic and altruistic person more likely to have their alleles take dominance in a population? I don’t know. But I think this route is far more productive an avenue of inquiry into behaviours we find dominant than assigning to a group of individuals social influence that somehow translates into heritability.

        Clear as mud, right?

      • I have spent a lot of time considering your input. The rain dance analogy is a good one. I believe I see what you are saying.

        I fear I may have allowed myself to fall for what appears to be some very obvious parallels, that while they do seem to make good sense, do not yet have a solid foundation linking them together. After a good deal of thought I realise I myself was allowing for some Chopra-esque assumption, being that somehow some way a trait could manifest in the psyche without first having some demonstrable mechanism for it to have happened. This certainly has yet to be shown, still much of my life has been spent assuming instincts to be a real and obvious phenomenon. Chopras squawk is along the lines of “if you really believe hard enough, you can change your DNA.” A Tinker Bell fallacy. It appears that E.O. Wilson has a very astute observation (sociobiology), but it too, until good data can support it, and a mechanism can be shown, I feel now is similar to a Tinker Bell fallacy.

        Mr. Wilson, Like Darwin has made a very unique observation, and it all adds up to a very believeable premise. But the difference is Darwin gave us the mechanism.

        I cribbed this from Wiki: “Sociobiology is based on the premise that some behaviors (both social and individual) are at least partly inherited and can be affected by natural selection.” I can see that no matter how much the first part of that sentence aligns with much that I have seen and experienced, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is affected by natural selection. It seems to ring very true, but it is also true we need to know how, before we can say so.

        Here is more: “It begins with the idea that behaviors have evolved over time, similar to the way that physical traits are thought to have evolved. It predicts, therefore, that animals will act in ways that have proven to be evolutionarily successful over time. This can, among other things, result in the formation of complex social processes conducive to evolutionary fitness.” Again, this seems so damned obvious. From ants, to lions, tigers, bears, and men, we have all seen instinctual behavior. The problem then is the prediction is an observation. Nothing more. I know I said I would not hide behind “Well, maybe they just haven’t found it yet.” But this seems like a good place to use it. It is possible that a genetic mechanism is there I would think. The fact that we don’t have it yet means one of two things. Either we haven’t found it yet, or it does not exist. I see that we can’t put faith in the unknown.

        I still feel Mr. Wilson is a very accomplished scientist, and an endearing personality. This show “Of Ants and Men” is a well polished presentation and I still consider it a must watch program.

        However, no matter how much sense the main premise seems to make, (and they spend a great deal of time trying to tie it all together, I need to sit down and watch it again with my newfound train of thought,) we do have to consider that no mechanism has been offered yet. Much of the rest of the show is fantastic IMO. Especially the stuff on Mr. Wilsons personal life and scientific accomplishments. I’d still very much like to be an E.O. Wilson when I grow up!

        Now if and when a mechanism is found. And I kind of hope it does, I hate having to throw out my notion of instinct, because mostly it has been with me a long time, just like my free will, but I realise you can’t hang on to an idea that seems to make sense. It has to make sense, and be shown how it makes sense. Otherwise we could say “goddidit” or “we saved Tinker Bell because we believed.” I’d still like for Mr. Wilson to be right, I may just sit on the fence a while and wait to see if in my lifetime I can keep my notion of “inborn” instincts. Im afraid the notion of free will is almost gone.

        So, thanks Tildeb for the very enlightening discussion. It is usually a good thing when the swords of logic are drawn.

      • The more I think on this the more I wonder if the word instinct, as I know an understand it, may no longer be a valid concept. Assuming the necessity of every possible behaviorial trait needing some underlying genetic code to account for it… I have a love/hate relationship with many things. Topics like this would be one of those things. I love the intrigue, and requirement to actually stop and think about something, but I hate finding out everything I may have thought I knew may have been wrong 🙂 That means I have to stop and rething everything for a while till I reach some sort of equilibrious comfort zone.

  2. I will look for this and watch it. It looks fascinating. I hear PBS is working on resurrecting Darwin to see if he can explain the evolutionary process by which Donald Trump’s hair became a sentient creature totally separate from anything else known to man. Can’t wait to hear what he says.

  3. I have met university graduates who could not hold a candle to you. You shouldn’t see it as a handicap. Most people reading this blog wouldn’t tell anyway.

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